Six years after the first free elections in Egypt’s post-Arab uprisings era, the Persian Gulf media’s attention to the country’s presidential election has considerably changed. Although the Gulf countries’ political support for Egypt remains unchanged – also expressed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s two-day visit to Cairo earlier this month in which he reaffirmed the highest level of bilateral cooperation – this election appears to be less important for Cairo’s Arab allies. In fact, while in 2012 the Gulf governments were most concerned about the way the situation had developed in Egypt (the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and its electoral success), nowadays Gulf partners seem disinterested in an election that most probably will confirm Abdel Fatah al-Sisi for a second term as president of Egypt.
There are different reasons behind this current lack of interest. First of all, in 2012 the electoral success of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) might have turned the political balance between Egypt and the Gulf governments regarding many regional issues in which Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were the most involved. Secondly, and related to the first speculation, a MB government could have led to a political change in the relations between Cairo and other Middle Eastern players such as Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main geopolitical competitor in the region, or between Hamas and Israel, historically always involved in different visions of Egyptian events in terms of its domestic policies and external dynamics.
Nonetheless, these circumstances did not arise and Egypt has remained a political and security pillar for the Arab nations, especially for its partners in the Gulf. In fact, as Ali Abdul Aal, Speaker of the Egyptian House of Representatives, stated, “The security of the Gulf is the security of Egypt, and the security of Egypt is the security of the Gulf. […] Gulf security is inseparable from Egypt’s strategic security” . These two sentences explain why Egypt is so important for the Gulf countries and what they expect from the Egyptian government. In fact, Egypt was part of a Saudi-led military coalition that intervened in Yemen in March 2015 to fight Houthi rebels, an armed, predominantly Shia, political movement allegedly supported by Iran. Moreover, Riyadh and Cairo are also part of a bloc of Arab states that has boycotted Qatar since June due to its alleged ties to Iran and violent extremist groups. Since al-Sisi became president in 2014, Egypt’s relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE have improved considerably, based on a notable consensus on regional and international issues, such as the fight against violent Islamist groups, the containment of MB and its regional allies (i.e. Qatar and Turkey), as well as support for a Sunni bloc headed by Saudi Arabia against the Shia Crescent (Iran and Hezbollah in primis).
These issues pose the question: are Egypt and the Gulf countries reliable partners or strategic allies? In the light of what we stated this could seem to be a foolish question, but it is a constant dilemma in Egyptian-Gulf countries relations. In fact in a changing Middle East, the many strategic transformations occurring in recent years have impacted and partially redefined Egypt’s relationship with the Gulf monarchies, especially with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In fact, a number of editors and analysts in Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula usually consider this relationship to be a “useful economic and military axis”, a “strategic partnership”, or, finally a “strategic alliance” within the broader Middle East to fight all the forces or phenomena that can destabilize the region.
Beyond this rhetoric based on unity of purpose and Arab brotherhood, Egypt’s relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, especially under al-Sisi, reveal complex bi-/multilateral interaction with several implications for this changing regional system of balances. Based on this, quite symbolic was the “Cairo Declaration” released in Egypt in May 2015, when al-Sisi and the Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Salman signed a multi-level pact to boost economic and military ties. Furthermore, the agreement also provided for the enhancement of investments in the energy and transport sectors and contained a pledge to work together to create a joint Arab force, a military project also known as the “Arab NATO”. Despite this smokescreen of good intentions, the pact reflects divergent interests: on the one hand, Egypt signed this agreement to procure funds for alleviating its political and security problems and thereby guarantee the stability and legitimate power of the al-Sisi government; on the other, Saudi Arabia wanted to strengthen its alliance with Cairo to contain the rise of Iranian influence in the region, preserve its economic interests in the MENA area and ensure Egypt’s ability to provide military protection to Saudi authorities.
Three years after the Cairo Declaration, this agreement showed all its limits when Egypt decided to pursue political choices not pertinent to its geopolitical interests, such as the military campaign in Yemen, setting aside the Libyan problem, instead a very big issue on the Egyptian foreign policy agenda. To this should be added Riyadh’s willingness to realign Hamas - and all the other Islamist groups more or less directly connected to the Muslim Brotherhood galaxy - into a Sunni-Saudi bloc to oppose Iran and its Shia allies in the region. Moreover, the alleged change in Saudi orientation was perceived by Egypt as a dangerous political sign, which clearly defines a discrepancy between Egyptian and Saudi foreign policy interests. In fact, while for Cairo Egypt’s main foreign policy priorities are based on restoring its central role in the region (Libya, the Gaza Strip, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Nile water issues), the main aim of Riyadh is to return to the status quo prior to the Iran nuclear deal and to use Egypt as its spearhead in regional dynamics. In this way it could contain any opposition to its leadership in the Arab-Muslim world.
Drawing on Saudi positions, Egypt has played a role of junior partner and its own interests have often been sidelined in the Saudi strategy to contain Iran. From this standpoint, al-Sisi’s decision to support Russian intervention and the Assad regime in Syria – against Saudi political expectations – is a symbolic choice demonstrating the Egyptian government’s frustration with being exploited by and dependent on Saudi Arabia, as well as with its genuine inability to overcome Saudi supremacy as a regional power broker.
In the current volatile scenario, it is hard to determine whether Egypt is being held hostage by Gulf States’ strategies or whether there is potential for maintaining synergy/convergence with its Gulf partners on a number of regional issues. In any case, caught between support and discord, the Egyptian government will maintain its complex relations with Gulf countries while seeking to pursue strategy independent from the political choices of the House of Saud.